On the forever mutating political and social relevance of superheroes
By Mahnoor Yawar
In 1940, as part of a two-page comic commissioned by Look magazine, Superman captures Stalin and Hitler and flies them to Geneva to stand trial before the League of Nations. There, they are found guilty of “unprovoked aggression against defenseless nations.” So significant was the comic when it came out that it drew criticism from the official newspaper of the SS, in a rather wordy opinion piece. Three years later, before Superman co-creator Siegel was drafted into the United States army, he managed to squeeze in a month-long arc in which Superman takes it upon himself to rescue none other than Santa Claus from Nazi Germany. In an epic confrontation with Hitler, Mussolini and Japanese general Hideki Tojo, the Man of Steel declares, “For a bunch of so-called Supermen, you’re not making such a good showing.”
Nazi Germany made a decidedly less campy reappearance in the Superman universe, this time on his 60th anniversary in 1998. Clark Kent is sent to infiltrate German society undercover and report on the brutality of the regime as well as all who suffered under it. Off duty, of course he repeatedly saves the day as his caped alter-ego. Only one thing was amiss about this particular story – the entire thing takes place without mentioning the words “Jew” or “Holocaust”. In response to the resulting uproar, the editor explained that this was an executive decision “to avoid providing fodder for further intolerance.” One assumes, of course, that this statement was delivered without a hint of irony.
Art and literature can only truly be defined and represented as part of a context, be it political, social, geographical or historical. Every work of art is a product of the intellectual and stylistic considerations that signify a certain time and place. In today’s politically correct world, even the slightest, most unconscious assumption can be misconstrued as a deep-seated bias. Convention consists of tiptoeing around discussing important issues, making outright declarations, and expressing strong opinions, diving so deep into the safe side that we end up in the cesspit of another group’s ire.
Jean-Paul Sartre believed that it is the reader’s subjectivity that offers any substance to the writer’s words. If so, the artists and writers behind comic books take it a step further: they offer both foundation and skeletal framework ready for the reader to add flesh to. In a medium that is both art form and literary style, superheroes occupy the same status once afforded to mythic gods, erstwhile heroes, cowboys and knights. These are characters rich with mythology, evolved over decades of human history, running on the fumes of two of humanity’s most complex concepts: faith and hope.
And yet superheroes, and all offshoots thereof, are consistently doomed to the status of shameful indulgence at best. Even within the medium, there exists a marked distinction between superhero comics and their more “highbrow” literary counterparts: the graphic novels. The latter have encouraged the evolution of a dedicated branch of academia, where the DC & Marvel universes are still mostly considered infantile and devoid of all intellectual value for those in both artistic and literary pursuits. Even with their oft-familiar stories of redemption and courage in a world that often lacks both, superheroes with their capes and tights and logos are but protagonists in modern age penny dreadfuls.
But despite such a simple commonality, one can argue that their appeal is hardly universal in our world. Morality may be the pinnacle of human evolution, but its parameters are hardly universally agreed upon. This is, after all, the entire basis of a world with multiple belief systems. So while superheroes are designed to represent the very pinnacle of moral justice, the fact is that the definition is up for interpretation across the spectrum of human existence.
Take Superman – for decades, fans of the medium have lauded him as the true representative of idealism. But which ideals exactly? The American ideals of liberty and strength? Or perhaps the Christian ideals of sacrifice and humility? Or maybe even the socialist ideals that subtly define his every motivation in fighting for the oppressed? And how do you reconcile a concept as colonial as the strong white savior for the masses within a modern-day context anyway?
Superhero stories, being entrusted with the upkeep of law and order as they are, cannot avoid an underlying thread of conservatism. After all, leading men in the Marvel Universe, Iron Man and Captain America are respectively an arms manufacturer and a biochemically enhanced super-soldier. While this fundamental facet does not necessarily translate into a particular leaning, the politics of superheroes are entirely dependent on the politics of their writers. The most iconic stories gingerly straddle the political divide of Left and Right, simultaneously embracing neither and thus appealing to both. Things changed in the 70s, when current events began to blatantly dictate not just the content, but the tone that they were presented in. Spider-Man grapples with civil disobedience on his college campus, to reflect the then political mood at Columbia. Green Lantern is left speechless and ashamed by a black man who demands why his skin color makes him less important. Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy becomes addicted to heroin. They both lament the “hideous moral cancer” that led to the deaths of good men like Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy and vow to save their beloved country before the rest of the galaxy. While moral ambiguity is not an option for superheroes, how far can a writer take political and social messages of their time without resorting to the pulpit?
One of the most widely bemoaned aspects of the genre is, to put it bluntly, the gratuitous violence. The final fight scene is basically the raison d’etre of a superhero story – a cathartic climax to the slow buildup of antagonistic forces – the very gratifying instant adrenaline rush that real world conflict resolution so unfortunately lacks. But there is a very fine line between cathartic and voyeuristic, especially in a world that is no stranger to the destruction of wars and natural disasters. So when critics point to prolonged fight sequences resulting in the complete annihilation of Batman’s Gotham or Superman’s Metropolis or even Spider-Man’s New York City, where he shows up too late to save his hometown on 9/11, it raises an important question: where does one draw the line between necessary violence and pure disaster porn?
All these are probably reasons why recent incarnations of superheroes tend to face dilemmas more psychological than physical. Characters have to be pared down to their essential motivations in order to find a use for them in a world that isn’t just championing “the American Way.” The current resurgence of interest in superheroes in a global atmosphere of guilt and fear is hardly coincidence. While the half-baked attempts at political relevance in more recent adaptations often take away from the very essence of these characters as they were initially imagined, it is this re-imagination that can save the genre from the failures of the post-WWII era, or the 80s when superheroes were stripped of their superiority to fight the more mundane battles of mortality and all that comes with it.
Superheroes were, after all, designed to represent the very ideals of what humanity could strive towards, but perhaps those ideals have altered and multiplied since. When major social change occurs, our heroes must change with them. The heroes that live in fiction are no different.
Mahnoor Yawar is Articles Editor for The Missing Slate.